Thursday, January 25, 2007

Leadership--Nature or Nuture

Ever wonder what difference a leader makes? Nellie gives us an article, passed on by her principal, about what difference a teacher makes. Does a leader make a difference? Sometimes we used to kid a principal that he could be out of the building and nobody would know and school would just go on as usual. Do we even need these leaders?

Are administrators and supervisors the real leaders? Who really leads you and your school? Do you do the leading? Would you rather be led by someone else? Is it archaic to think of a leader as one who is in front of and directing others to do things? Can leading be done from behind?

I never wanted to lead anything in my life. I wanted some questions answered sometimes and some help with a troublesome student or two in the early stages of my career. Where was the bookroom, how do I use this new phone system, can we order these books? Mostly, I wanted people to get out of my way. As a thirteen year old, I was elected the captain of our summer softball team, not because I was a good leader but because I was the biggest, strongest player at that time and was our most powerful hitter. For the first game of a double header, I sat myself on the bench and let another capable player take my position at third base. I thought that’s what a leader should do. After sitting and thinking about it during that first game, I resigned the position of captain and took back my position at third. Just let me play my game.

I never really wanted to be a leader in education either but I realized that the pay increases came with going up the ladder in supervisory jobs so, at age 32, I became a department chair in a junior high school. It was nice being “in charge,” teaching only three classes with the reduced paper load, getting a bump in salary, and being part of the principal’s cabinet. But really lead? How do you do that? How do you get people to move beyond where they are and become better? Michael Jordan is said to have made all of those players around him better? How do you do that?

For years, I have admired the stories told by my good friend, Pat Monahan, or by my friend, Hugh Patterson, or by Victor Jaccarino or Frank Gallo. These English department chairs told about things they did with individual teachers or with their whole departments. They told about handling a difficult teacher, getting materials that helped to bring the members together, getting teachers to think beyond their immediacy. They told of bringing key presenters to the department to speak for them and they told of ways that they integrated some ideas into things beyond the department and into the school setting. I was always amazed. How did they think of these things? Who taught them to do this?

Back in my first supervisory position, our principal and mentor used to hold court after school where many of “his people” would hang out in his office after school. If any of us complained, Ernie would wave his pipe at us and say, “Mahoney, stop your complaining. I took you out of that high school and made you something, made you a somebody,” and he would laugh and we would all laugh. He’d say at another time, “Luciano, what are you complaining about now? I took you out of oblivion down in that elementary school gym you were sentenced to and gave you new life, made you somebody important. You were dying down there, dying!” We’d laugh and wave back and say, “Yeah, thanks a lot, Ernie. Thanks for nothing,” and we’d laugh again. And so it went, often these ritual-like comments would be played out. We would all joke about it but, over the years, we came to see that they were true. We learned a lot from Ernie by watching him build a community with the staff. I learned how to observe a class and write an effective, helpful report. But because I am slow to learn, I never learned how to be a leader.

I moved on to other schools, other districts, other positions. Still, I never considered myself a leader, just someone who was a little organized, would work harder than most others, and had some expertise in the field of teaching English.

So how do you learn to be a leader? None of my administrative and supervisory courses went beyond the fundamentals of running a department and fulfilling the laws and rules of the state. We never touched on dealing with different kinds of teachers and people, being a visionary, cutting through the read tape, fighting for your department or for an individual teacher.

How would you know who in your school or department would make a good leader? How would you lead and encourage the person or persons? Is there any book you would give to them or a set of beliefs you would pass on? Do you have a handbook of anecdotes you would turn over?

We give awards for leadership but is that the same as having an impact? The Beatles and Elvis had an impact. Were they leaders? The destruction of 9/11 had an impact. There are no leaders from this impact, though some leaders did emerge. Publishing and presenting can have an impact but is that leadership and being a leader? How do you make a difference with those you are supposed to lead? Do you have a story of leadership, your own leading or someone leading you? How did you you get involved? Did someone tap you on the shoulder? Did you always know you wanted to be a leader? Why not share your story here?

Jim Mahoney


Louann said...

I enjoyed reading your reflections on leadership, Jim. There's no way I could answer all of the great questions you raised, but I do want to speak to a couple of them. You asked about how we knew a leader had impact and about the impact of publications and presentations.

This made me think about how I know someone is a leader and how I try to be one. It seems to me that a leader is one who makes it possible for people to grow and thrive. That's it. But how does it happen?

A leader has vision but knows that the vision will not be reality without others who share it. So, a leader might present the vision in an article or a book, developing the vision in such a way that others understand it. I think of Jim Moffett, for example, who presented us with a vision of how we should think about English language arts differently. I think about past recipients of the CEL Exemplary Leader Award who helped us see classrooms, students, and assessment differently.

A leader also creates conditions for others to thrive by giving them a chance to develop and display their expertise. There are lots of ways to do that, but a couple of them are being the program chair for a conference or editing a collection. Ira Hayes, for example, and the people who worked with him on the beginning-teacher book for CEL and NCTE gave a lot of people a chance to help others understand mentoring new teachers. That's leadership through publications, I'd say.

Locally, in our departments and districts, there might be lots of opportunities if we just look for them.

I don't think that leadership is titular. That is, I don't think a title confers leadership ability. Instead, I guess I'd call it situational. Being a leader means doing what you can to help others grow. It also means seeing and creating the circumstances for growth to occur.

I think I probably think more than this, and some conversation might help me make it more nuanced, but there's something to start with. Thanks again, Jim.

Vincent said...

I appreciate the chance to share views on leadership. A little background: for 14 years, I taught English at a variety of levels and institutions (two-year college, community college, college composition at a 4-year university, and high school English). I then had the opportunity to become a Literacy Coach in the high school in which I worked. Five years later, I took on the K-12 Literacy Facilitator role in my district.

We (district and school-site folks) had a vague vision of what the Literacy Coach would actually do in a high school. I soon found myself meeting with the principal (and my leadership mentor, it would turn out) on a weekly basis. She continued to create win-win situations for me; I made mini-presentations at staff meetings, wrote portions of the school newsletter on literacy, and the like. She provided opportunities for me to begin to be seen as a literacy leader in my school community.

As my confidence grew in my leadership capacity, I began to craft a vision of where the school needed to go in terms of literacy development. "Vision" is both an over-used term and an under-used concept. A literacy vision was not the lens through which teachers viewed their work. I had to fit them with this new pair of glasses. As I looked at the long-range goals for the school, I had to work on the short-term and immediate gains for individual teachers. The vision had to have a rationale so teachers would become engaged, and it needed clearly defined steps along the way, and visible support, so teachers would be able to move toward achieving the literacy vision. In essence, I needed to bring a vision and develop a collaborative culture to bring it to fruition. To create that literacy-rich culture, I needed the support from administration and the hard work of the teachers.

One of my favorite quotes about leadership (and I'll have to paraphrase) is "a leader takes people where they would not go on their own." My principal, when I first became a Literacy Coach, took me to a place I would not have gone on my own; my hope is that my literacy leadership takes teachers and other literacy leaders to a place they would not go on their own.

Lyn said...

Like you, I fell into being a department chair. Now I work as a local literacy coach, a university instructor, and folks around here even call me a literacy leader. I don't feel like a leader but becuase I have these positions, I have been trying to balance out my reading with more leadership books and even trying to look at different models. Loved Jeffrey Glanz at CEL this year in New York! The good news is that much of what I do - according to the experts- is right and some of what I do is not so right.

As a leader, I become frustrated sometimes because I am always being asked about this program or this idea- constantly. I don't know everything about everything in literacy but people assume I do. I was sharing this woe with a friend and she said to me- Lyn once you make your mark as a good teacher, you are always teaching and leading. I think that's true. It's the good teaching that has brought so many of us to these leadership roles. If we can lead our students, people assume we can lead anybody. Of course, we all know that a group of 8th graders is a breeze compared to a room of teachers. But I like the challenge and 12 years of teaching and leading 8th graders has helped me get to this point of leading teachers. And I think we forget that while we may not have any formal training to be leaders, our expertise and experience has been preparing us for this all along and because we view ourselves and teachers and learners, that puts us in a more equitable power position with those we lead.

Thanks for all your good thoughts, Jim!